Good morning and welcome back. We continue today with both Christmas News of the Weird (as we do every day) and the second (out of 24) entries in Justin von Bosau's Traveling Timeline Trackdown of every filmed version of A Christmas Carol! Unlike the Spirits, there's No Way we're going to get through them in one night - nor 24, for that matter. But the ones he does get through are a very entertaining read, given his funny nature (and growing up with me as his Dad!) and his discerning eye as a Film Student. And in most instances (especially the early ones), there is a link at the end for YOU to watch the film and, like the Christmas Bells themselves, chime in!
We begin in 1901 with the earliest film adaptation. Take it away, Justin!
Silent Film Adaptations
“Scrooge; or Marley’s Ghost” (1901)
“Scrooge; or Marley’s Ghost” is the earliest film adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” and boy is it strangely bleak.
After Dickens wrote the book--and it became as popular as one of Mr. Fezziwig’s parties!--he went on tour reading excerpts of the book or even the entire book at once. These started (as best Wikipedia says) on Dec. 27th, 1853, and have been echoed by Dan O’Herlihy in 1960 recording ostensibly the very first audiobook to CD (when he wasn’t busy stealing Stonehenge in Halloween III), Jonathan Winters’ one-man-show on NPR from the 1980’s, Sir Patrick Stewart’s one-man-show from 1988 reading and acting, Phil Arnold’s “The Scrooge Diary / Scrooge Tells All” (a solo theater production in Canada, going from 1990 onward), Kevin Norberg’s “Scrooge! A Dickens of a One-Man Show” in 1991, Gerald Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (which has run from 1993 onward), Greg Oliver Bodine’s one-man-show from 2003, Tim Curry’s audiobook for Audible (a Signature Performance!), and Simon Callow’s live readings dressed as Dickens (rather after being chased about Cardiff by some Unquiet Dead).
The point, I suppose, is there’s quite a few adaptations that stem from a delight in the source material and, before the advent of film, took the form of stage readings and theater adaptations. The first of those theater adaptations, incidentally, was “A Christmas Carol: Or, the Miser’s Warning!” which is a right head-turning name; a two-act play by C. Z. Barnett that came on February 5th, 1844--just a few months after the novella! I’d list all the theater adaptations but I’d be blue in the face before I got even through 1950; practically every U.S. state has one that’s been running since God Blessed Us, Every One.
But then, a train arrived at the station. More than that: Méliès showed us our dreams on celluloid. The impossible became possible--and so, in 1901, the first of many, many film adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” came, ringing in an era of films that prefer instead to go with the title “Scrooge.”
(Incidentally, this is actually the second Dickens film ever made, not the first! The first is “The Death of Poor Joe,” from March of 1901--“Scrooge; or Marley’s Ghost” is from November. But “Death of Poor Joe” is only 1 minute; this is 6 minutes 20 seconds--take that, “Bleak House”!)
“Scrooge; or Marley’s Ghost” begins with the title card, emblazoned
with a backdrop that I just now noticed being Scrooge’s gravestone. It’s even partially legible, despite the film stock’s sadly decayed quality! Spoilers!
The most complete print of this film currently on YouTube runs 6 full minutes--a wild improvement over the original estimate that only 3 minutes, 26 seconds of footage survived with help from the British Film Institute. It is pleasant and slightly bizarre by modern standards to view a silent film as--well, silence: no ancillary score was provided. But it makes it all the more interesting a watch.
“Scrooge” (or, Marley’s Ghost) begins as it ends: in the middle of things. Our first screen Scrooge (Daniel Smith, well-fed and surprisingly charming, as if he still holds a child’s wonder himself) is looking off sideways, where a somewhat portly Bob Cratchit is bashfully ushering out-- someone. It could be Fred; it could be the gentlemen mistaking the establishment for one that doesn’t want the poor to die, and decrease the surplus population. Whoever they were, off they go before your eye can fully register them.
Scrooge (not Marley’s Ghost) is suitably exasperated with Mr. Cratchit, bending his knees more than once to demonstrate it; Bob lowers his head again and again and the two wander about the business of Bob leaving for the whole of Christmas day. Scrooge, remaining to work, huffs and throws down his pen in frustration before leaving as well with one heck of a pilgrim hat.
The first use of intertitles in cinema tell us we are now on to Scene II: Marley’s Ghost (or Scrooge?) shows Scrooge Visions of himself in CHRISTMASSES PAST. The producers apparently actually had hoped that, because of the familiarity of the book, they didn’t need as many intertitles! So the first use of titles is also one ready to cut many of them out.
Scrooge arrives at a painted wall with a door evoking his wood-and-frost house-front. He goes to open his door when BAM! Marley’s head appears in a jump-scare staring completely forward, surrounded by a black oval. Scrooge stumbles back in horror, his hat passing through an alternate dimension as it goes underneath the visual effect. It’s 1901, and still very impressive for the time!
Marley vanishes: Scrooge goes :O and shudders through the door in such dramatic fashion that I can’t help but smile.
Once in his room, Scrooge changes out of his hat into a nightcap, and throws a bathrobe over his full suit of clothes, opting to get ready for bed fully dressed and shoed in case Business strikes. He shuts the heavy black curtains of his window and goes to occupy the other half of the screen with his supper, leading to a mirage of effects that make up the rest of the 3 minutes quite impressively. Marley’s Ghost appears, earning the film its title; a see-through apparition be-bedsheeted in white. He doesn’t skimp on our celluloid either, no sir: there’s no undigested-bit-of-beef talk here. Marley’s Ghost steps aside and WHAM! on the black curtain now is Young Scrooge being fawned over by his lover. (I particularly like Daniel Smith clutching his chest, going “That’s me!” and turning to stare down the camera, as if asking us, “Bro, are you seeing this, too?!”)
He sobs, or maybe develops a headache, as we see the courtship unfold and fall to misery. Then he opens the curtains, and intertitles take us to Christmas Present.
Bob Cratchitt (another t for the Bob) and Fred drink to Mister Scrooge, we hear, and immediately we see the Cratchittt’s house. We know it’s theirs, because, ingeniously for a silent film, Mrs. Cratchitttt has stenciled “GOD BLESS US, EVERY ONE” like an albatross looming over the family table for the audience to see.
Mr. Bob himself comes home to a lovely wife and legion of children, including Tiny Tim sitting in a corner (who may be ailing, bored, or a mannequin, I’m not entirely sure), and lifts the boy up to bring him to the table and show off that there is indeed a crutch here! He does give the little lad two kisses to the cheek--not in some overdramatic vaudeville fashion either--and it was surprisingly heartwarming to see such affection, making me realize you don’t see many parents kissing their children’s cheeks anymore.
Marley and Scrooge half-materialize on the side of the picture where the set visibly ends and all is a black curtain to better see them; Scrooge clutches double-breasted at his chest as Bob raises a toast to Mr. Scrooge, as the intertitles mentioned. Mrs. Bob looks on, uncomfortable, but the kids are raucous to be drinking. I share Mrs. Bob’s sentiments, but only because there’s two staves left and only a minute left of film.
Tiny Tim steals another 17 seconds uttering the prophetic wall-hanging, to which Bob raises his arms and looks up in praise of the Lord like a Southern Minister.
We fade from Bob to Fred, seeing a less-well-knitted “A MERRY XMAS” on the wall, and Fred manages to only need ten seconds total fading in and out to raise a glass with his well-dressed party. Marley whisks us away faster than you can ask,“Is it a disagreeable creature?”
A final intertitle tells us we’re going to THE CHRISTMAS THAT MIGHT BE which also neatly says we get to see Scrooge’s grave and the death of Tiny Tim. In the next 20 seconds.Scrooge’s grave is, inexplicably, in the middle of a sidewalk right off a church? People walk on by with more amazing pilgrim hats, and then Mr. Marley’s bedsheet ghost comes over, beckoning Daniel Smith. Now that Mr. Marley’s Ghost is not see-through, we can see clearly that it’s just a guy with a light shirt and dark trousers--I guess? from the time period like the other costuming?--who just really does have a sheet wrapped cloak-like about him. He points unimpressed at the grave and Scrooge weeps, a forgotten soul, destined for the grave if there’s no redemption--
Uhhh the film just ended.
Sadly, the final minute or so of footage is most likely lost to time; I mean, it’s been 120 years, and we’re quite lucky to even have 6/7 of the film. For all the silliness in my description, this is quite the fascinating watch, and well worth your time. It is better seen as a time capsule of how early film was made; there is no camera movement at all; the sets are almost gaudy in how expressionistic they are to convey this is an OFFICE or a HOUSE or-- and the acting is well and truly over-dramatic. But that is a holdover from theater: if you don’t emote like crazy, then those folks in the far back don’t get any of it.
It’s a testament to the strength of Dickens’ story that an author so verbose can still be adapted without any dialog. Yet, perhaps that is, as rightly assumed, the fact that we are so intertwined with knowing these are the events.
Ironically, “Scrooge; or, Marley’s Ghost” is as much an adaptation of a stage-play as it is the original book. J. C. Buckstone’s adaptation of the story tosses the extinguisher cap over the Spirits and opts instead to have a sheet-wearing Marley drag his former partner through the redemptive process (ideally with a redemption included!); the play also came out in 1901.
Its effects were achieved in large part to being produced by Robert W. Paul, a film pioneer who invented the first cameras able to reverse-crank film inside the camera to double-expose, creating the effects of the ghosts and the visions Scrooge sees. (The first camera Georges Méliès used was one made by R. W. Paul!). The film was directed by Walter Booth in the U.K.; Booth was another boundary-pusher of what could be achieved on film. For all that it’s old and clunky now, with theatrical acting and contemporarily-easy effects--this is astounding for 1901, and can be found here.
Thank you, sir! London in Dickens' time was a rat-infested place, with carols being sung about it, such as "O ChristRat Tree, O ChristRat Tree, we ... " - what, you've never heard that? Well, it's not as popular as the others, admittedly, but it's still a tradition. Don't believe me? THESE folks are believers, buddy! You'd also better believe the family cat is out of a job, after this! Pay particular attention to the brave (and not-so-brave) hunters in this clip, too! :)
I think the next item speaks for itself - 'We live on Britain's most festive street - but a Scrooge ruins the fun for everyone'. Read on!
And on that 'light' note, we'll bid you a fond farewell until tomorrow. See you then!